1 Hr., 35 Mins.
Jamón, Jamón / Belle Epoque March 19, 2019
Fernando Fernán Gómez
Miriam Díaz Aroca
1 Hr., 34 Mins.
matches The Bachelor in its premise but discomfitingly fashions it all as if it were Merchant-Ivory-esque cinematic poetry.
Set in 1931, on the brink of the Spanish Second Republic, it stars Jorge Sanz as Fernando, a boyishly handsome 20-something-year-old soldier who has, as the movie opens, defected. He’s been wandering the countryside aimlessly since; at one point, he is almost apprehended. But, because happenstance is a powerful thing in the movies, Fernando eventually stumbles on a large, secluded property owned by an older man named Manolo (Fernando Fernán Gómez), who likes him and takes him in.
Manolo’s four daughters are coming to visit soon; the plan is that, once they arrive, Fernando will head elsewhere. When the latter briefly meets them at the train station, though, he realizes that to turn the other way would be a mistake. He is young, and so are they; it is the perfect time to get married.
Fernando invites himself to stay at Manolo’s property in the long term, in the name of romancing the daughters one by one. He is enamored of each. But shortcomings in all make it difficult to make anything move past the orthodoxies of a fling. The oldest, Clara (Miriam Díaz-Aroca), recently became a widow, and seems to be interested in Fernando only in terms of comfort; Rocío (Maribel Verdú) is intent on marrying a rich man, and thus exclusively views Fernando as a pastime; Violeta (Ariadna Gil) is a closeted lesbian. (When she has sex with Fernando, it is only because they have just come back from a costume party for which he masqueraded as a woman.) It is Luz (Penélope Cruz), the youngest and most inexperienced of the sisters, then, who is just right.
The problem with Belle Epoque is not its partner-hopping conceit — as long as everyone’s a consenting adult and are kept in the know about what’s going on, fanatical horniness is A-OK as far as I’m concerned. The problem is the characterization of the female characters: In the film, they are not much more than objects — rendered important only if they are, at that moment, important in the eyes of the hero. The film is told from Fernando’s perspective, so an acceptable justification might be that, since he only gets to know these women outwardly, that will have to be the case for us, too. But the screenplay, which was written by the director, Fernando Trueba, with Rafael Azcona and José Luis García Sánchez, draws the characters so hoarily that even Fernando himself is little else besides an idea.
The feature isn’t averse to upholding tiresome gender dynamics, either. (It’s set in 1931, after all.) Of course Fernando will not choose the older sisters — as sexually experienced and challenging women, they’re “tainted” in comparison to the preserved, passive Luz. Belle Epoque, with its sensuous cinematography and resplendent setting, treats its material as if it were high art, had great meaning. But really, it’s a shallow though great-looking sex farce — more buttoned-up than Jamón, Jamón, maybe, but far less genuine.
Jamón, Jamón: A-
Belle Epoque: C
f you’re going to make a movie that incorporates infidelity into the narrative as if it weren’t that much different than a conventional aesthetic device, I’d like it to be something like Jamón, Jamón, where sugar-coating is generally avoided and where everyone is their own worst enemy. I came to notice this personal preference while watching Belle Epoque (1992), a visually splendid coming-of-age movie that sort of
brunette with steel-blue eyes who could tell you he was 15 and you’d believe him or could tell you he’s 25 and you’d believe him. Silvia’s still-lithe mother, Carmen (Anna Galiena), also sometimes has sex with José Luis. José Luis’ mom, the high-strung Conchita (Stefania Sandrelli), who runs an underwear factory, soon starts having an affair with one of her models, the studly albeit air-headed Raúl (Javier Bardem). Mid-movie, she hires him to seduce Silvia in order to get her away from her son. This seduction proves successful. Then, later, Silvia sleeps with José Luis’ father for a laugh.
This sort of storyline could fuel the fires of about a dozen Danielle Steel novels, and it's precisely this flamboyant carnality and folly that makes Jamón, Jamón such a delight. Co-written and directed by Bigas Luna, a sensualist director if there ever was one, it self-assuredly blends genres: it’s sex comedy by way of soap opera, surrealist drama, and tragedy. The small, droughty Spanish town in which the film is set is a breeding ground for sexual chaos — an oasis where temptation and pleasure are everywhere but where everyone is going to have to pay for their transgressions sooner or later.
Comments have been made that the movie isn’t as funny as Luna and his co-writers, Cuca Canals and Quim Monzó, seem to think it is, and that its predilection for the overwrought provides it with pronounced, more-overt-than-intended silliness. But when I watched Jamón, Jamón, it seemed more to me that Luna and his giddy collaborators were more bent on crafting a zany farce than an out-and-out romp where the laughs are as steady as the sex scenes. I found it imaginative and subversive. Think of the parodic black comedies Luis Buñuel churned out in the 1970s: not funny funny, per se, but brazen and smart enough to make the constant presence of elevated outrageousness turn out to be artistically valuable in itself.
The gameness of the actors — particularly an exquisitely viscerally motivated Cruz and the infectiously sexually confident Bardem — helps, too. This narrative’s ridiculous, but the ensemble treats everything Luna throws their way as if it were the same as the material defining any storied play you’d find in a Classics 101 class at a community college. Fornicating under the testicles of a gargantuan roadside bull cutout? The movie’s equivalent of the literary rendition of the Battle of Troy, I think.
ex and partner-swapping run so rampant in Jamón, Jamón (1992) that it’s a wonder only one of its characters is pregnant and that that pregnancy began gestating before the movie begins. The concept of monogamy is Greek to this melodramatically lusty ensemble. The character with child is a full-lipped young woman named Silvia (Penélope Cruz); the father is José Luis (Jordi Molià), a rakish